National Forklift Safety Day 2024

National Forklift Safety Day comes once a year in June, but various sensor and vision-based, ‘operator-assist’ technologies, as well as telematics, are used daily to enhance the level of operator awareness for manually operated lift truck fleets.

Lift truck OEMs increasingly offer trucks with sensor-based features designed to boost operator awareness and help with stability control.
National Forklift Safety Day comes once a year in June, but various sensor and vision-based, ‘operator-assist’ technologies, as well as telematics, are used daily to enhance the level of operator awareness for manually operated lift truck fleets.

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The headlines around the use of lift truck technologies are often about fully autonomous units now being piloted by the likes of Walmart and others. But fully autonomous lift trucks, while growing in use, aren’t yet widely deployed, not in comparison to the newer generation of manually operated lift trucks that offer sensor-based, operator-assist functionality. That’s something to think about when it comes to strategies for improving fleet safety.

It’s a bit like the automotive world, where fully autonomous cars or taxis aren’t in wide use, but nearly every automaker offers models with sensors that warn drivers about everything from lane deviations to some models slowing the car to avoid a collision. Similarly, in the world of industrial trucks, most OEMs now offer a range of sensor-based features that enhance operator awareness, and through that, contribute to safer work environments.

Multiple technologies can help with operator and pedestrian awareness, from passive warning gear like blue lights, to advanced active systems for object detection and stability control, says Joe Koch, emerging technology sales manager with Yale Lift Truck Technologies. Additionally, telematics and fleet software offer access control and other functions that can help with safety efforts. Finally, comprehensive real-time locating systems, or more localized tag-based solutions that can be affixed to employee badges or trucks, can provide other means of object detection.

“I think it’s a plethora of features drawing interest in the market rather than one thing, though there is interest in operator-assist technologies, but also, something as simple as on our three-wheel standups, our Operator Presence System that uses a laser design to detect if the operator is in position, eliminating the need keep a floor pedal depressed, which improves ergonomics and comfort. Or, a company may decide to opt for stability control now, and other operator assist features later. We are focused on trying to be as flexible as possible for our customers as their needs change or grow over time.”

Fleet operations of any size can benefit from telematics, if not for its more safety-focused aspects, for its analytic insights into fleet productivity and truck use patterns. 

Sadly, each year, fatal accidents continue, with tip overs being especially deadly. According to National Safety Council, in 2022 lift trucks were involved in 73 work-related deaths. It’s important to keep in mind the scale of lift truck use when pondering that statistic.

The industry group Industrial Truck Association (ITA), which organizes National Forklift Safety Day (see box), estimated in 2019 that more than 4.5 million lift truck operators work across all industries in the U.S. alone, and that regularly, more than 200,000 new trucks enter the U.S. market.

Lift truck fleets can also be made safer through use of telematics, say vendors. The promise is that these technologies will enhance the level of operator awareness, while reinforcing best practices learned during training.

Passive versus active

Sensors or cameras on trucks can alert an operator if an object or pedestrian is present. If it’s an alert-only system, it’s a passive system. However, if the solution goes on to modify truck performance some way, like slowing if a collision is imminent or automatically limiting performance if an unstable situation is detected, then it’s considered an active operator-assist solution.

In practice, a well-trained operator might rarely if ever trigger an active operator assist function to engage, but active limiting is there if ever needed, says Koch.

“The detection systems are there just to support and assist if something were to happen, but your seasoned operator might not experience any kind of performance decrease,” says Koch. “For example, with our Active Dynamic Stability (ADS), the system is designed and is in line with how operators are taught to drive their trucks safely, following a company or a site’s best practices, so it might never engage with a well-trained operator.”

It’s also possible to configure Yale’s operator assist technologies with different thresholds, depending on how experienced an operator is, adds Koch. Similarly, Yale’s telematics solution has configurable settings, so new operators or ones starting out on a new type of truck can have stricter settings than a highly experienced operator with an impeccable safety record.

Multiple technologies can help with operator and pedestrian awareness, from passive warning gear like blue lights, to advanced active systems for object detection and stability control.

As with any new features, it helps to train operators on the specific functions and alerts they’ll be seeing. Koch says one Yale customer he knows of held a full operator training day after getting trucks with operator assist functions to gain proficiency in how the alerts and user interface work.

“They had a full day of operator training, and then a maintenance day as well, to understand the full breadth of how the system works, what they were going to be looking at in terms of alerts, and how the system is going to feel and interact with them,” says Koch. “That was an initiative this customer made a point of doing to ensure their operators were fully up to speed with the new capabilities.”

Of course, these still relatively new technologies are complemented by site-specific safety measures like marking safe paths for pedestrians, or tweaks to infrastructure like putting barriers between trucks and pedestrians to minimize risk in the first place.

“We’re seeing more companies looking to create more physical separation between truck and pedestrian traffic,” Koch says.

Multiple factors go into creating safer working environments for lift truck operators, order pickers, and those around them, says Michael G. Field, president and CEO of The Raymond Corporation.

While Raymond offers multiple operator assist features for its trucks, like an In-Aisle Detection System for its newer orderpickers and swing-reach trucks, or its Integrated Tether System, an operator-assist tool that can limit lift truck functionality if an operator is not properly tethered, Field says that in practice, improved safety starts with excellent training, and is also aided by examining workflows and processes to make them more efficient, less prone to hazards, and more easily followed in a consistent manner.

“Consistent processes and safe processes go together, because if you can do something repeatedly, and know how to do it well as part of training, you’re better able to operate in a safe manner,” says Field. “We believe in the value of operator assist technologies, but safety is a holistic issue that goes back to improving your processes and establishing well understood best practices.”

Those fleets with telematics have the added benefit of more complete data on incidents and truck use to see where processes might be improved, or if a different mix of equipment is needed, adds Field.

As for operator-assist technologies that tap sensors, the technologies are seen as a way to reinforce best practices like slowing at busy intersections, or not cornering too fast when transporting a load, rather than any sort of substitute for careful training on best practices.

“Our focus with operator-assist technologies is to reinforce best practices and help operators be more successful at what they’re trained to do, which is to follow safe, efficient, repeatable processes,” says Field.

Telematics as foundational

Maybe not every operation is ready to deck out all their trucks and DC environment with the latest operator-assist or real-time locating options, or but nearly every fleet operation of any size can benefit from telematics, if not for its more safety-focused aspects, for its analytic insights into fleet productivity and truck use patterns.

“At the end of the day, telematics is all about making use of structured data to gain insights into your business, whether it be specific data points about incidents by operator or site, or KPIs that you want to regularly look at from a business standpoint,” says Darrell Hinnant, commercial director of emerging technology at Hyster. “We all know companies need to look closely at productivity and asset utilization KPIs, and with telematics, we‘re here to help them understand how to use that data to the best of their ability.”

Lift truck telematics solutions have evolved to include more actionable analytics, in addition to the more tactical-level functions like digitized safety checklists, says Michael Bloom, director of connected truck technologies at Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas. While sensor-based, operator-assist technologies do improve “situational awareness” for operators in busy environments, says Bloom, telematics carries such broad value that nearly any operation with a fleet of any size can benefit from having it on their trucks.

“Telematics is becoming much more analytical, and not only that, but more actionable, leveraging analytics to pinpoint pivotal focus areas for improvement,” says Bloom. “That includes analytics across all areas of a fleet, like regulatory compliance, vehicle efficiency or preventative maintenance—to name a few. Today’s telematics information isn’t just data, it’s a story that connects the dots across multiple aspects of fleet and business operations and provides guidance about what to do next.”

The range of benefits from telemetry and fleet software have made telematics a popular option for Logisnext’s lift truck brands, reports Bloom. “We don’t have to sell telematics aggressively today—customers are coming to our dealers asking for telematics, and more and more, we see it in truck RFPs, because the managers in operations realize the value it brings,” says Bloom.

Jeff Burns, president of Kenco MHE Solutions, and John Barlew, vice president of safety for Kenco, concur that telematics is useful for everything from digitized safety checks and incident tracking, to monitoring fleet costs and productivity.

For the fleets it manages for clients, Kenco can apply proprietary fleet management and telematics platform called FleetCloud. Kenco is also working on an object-detection system it can retrofit to multiple existing trucks and truck brands, but telematics is already being widely used in the fleet services it provides for insights on safety trends and costs, and also, for access control.

Technologies such as telematics and real-time locating can enable a digital, dynamic view of traffic patterns to see any high-risk intersections. This is an improvement over paper-based risk assessments done with diagrams, maps and in-person observations, which while useful, are frozen in time rather than reflecting how patterns change over the course of days, peaks seasons or time of shift, says Barlew.

“Now with some of the technologies like real-time location services and telematics solutions data, you can plot out these patterns digitally to see where these high-risk areas exist, and what might be done to mitigate or eliminate risks,” says Barlew.

The best approach is a combination of non-technical steps and best practice policies, safety-related administration, perhaps combined with technology like telematics, says Barlew.

“I always point to using a hierarchy of controls to eliminate or mitigate risks when it comes to the risks involved when you have pedestrians and industrial trucks operating in the same spaces,” says Barlew. “In some cases, you can eliminate the risk by a control like installing rigid guardrails to separate truck traffic from pedestrians, or it can be engineering controls or technologies that mitigate risks, or administrative and training programs, while at the bottom level, you have simple controls like having pedestrians wear yellow vests. It’s really a combination of controls to create a safer environment.”

Telematics software has the ability to be customized to reflect site policies and controls, adds Burns. For example, if the digital safety checklist is supposed to take 12 minutes to complete, telematics can detect if the routine is being finished way too fast and alert a supervisor of the trend. “Telematics and fleet software can help ensure controls and best practices are followed,” Burns says. “And, when people adhere to controls, you tend to have safer operating conditions.”

Since telemetry detects impacts as they occur and tracks the operator of each unit, it’s a natural tool for assessing which operators need training, coaching or if impacts are happening at certain spots, notes Chris Grote, senior product manager at Crown Equipment.

“By tracking and analyzing the data, managers can quickly determine responsibility and frequency and determine a course of action,” Grote says. “If an impact alert is sent, a manager can take that information and investigate the situation and speak with the operator. If data shows impacts routinely are happening in one area of the facility, the facility manager can be brought in to consider any changes to layout. Managers can also consider incentives and additional training as a way to encourage correct operator behavior.”

The value proposition

To some extent, the need for the most advanced, active operator-assist technologies can be application or site specific.

It can be a “must have” for a big operation with many trucks and pedestrians, but less of a need for very small fleets and sites who just don’t experience incidents.

On the other hand, features like stability control are becoming more like a standard feature, while telematics can provide value for nearly any size fleet.

One company that has widely deployed telematics solutions across its DC network is Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, a leading distributor of wines, spirits, beer and non-alcoholic products in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Kay Yoder, senior vice president for environmental, health, and safety, business continuity, and sustainability at Southern Glazer’s, says this includes telematics and fleet management systems from Raymond and Crown installed in all their new powered industrial vehicles.

Yoder says the technology brings multiple benefits, from digitizing the safety checklist, to alerts for maintenance, and immediate insight on fleet safety, productivity and maintenance.

“These solutions really do help with trend analysis on the use of the equipment, with utilization, energy consumption, impact notifications, as well as generating data that might reveal coaching opportunities for employees. We also benefit from alerts that help us meet compliance requirements like certification expiration and preventative maintenance (PM), so even if a mechanical failure is not spotted during a pre-use safety check, there are alerts for the maintenance team so they can stay in front of those PMs, instead of waiting for something to fail.”- Yoder

Yoder says Southern Glazer’s has tested some advanced trucks with sensor-enabled operator assist features, but has not deployed them at scale, though most lift trucks at Southern Glazer’s DCs are outfitted with blue lights to help pedestrians be more visually aware of nearby trucks maneuvering or backing up around them.

Telematics, on the other hand, is widely used and helps on multiple levels, Yoder says, including through multi-lingual capabilities, which helps with proper execution of digitized safety checklists.

“OSHA requires us to train in the native language of the employee, so these systems are now available where you can have it display in multiple languages on the console, not just in English. The technology we have today is really helping us with many insights, as well improving the level of understanding for the operator when doing safety checks.”

The key to safe lift truck operation is an attentive operator who follows his or her training, notes Grote, which is why having a good training program are is at the core of safe operations. And that training should extend to others, like training supervisors on spotting risky behaviors or site conditions, and how to provide constructive feedback.

“Effective safety management requires extending training beyond forklift operators to include managers, supervisors and pedestrians, and making it readily accessible and convenient for anyone involved in the operation,” Grote says

Lift truck OEMs increasingly offer trucks with sensor-based features designed to boost operator awareness and help with stability control.